April 29th, 2008
02:13 PM ET

Race in the Race for the Presidency: How Media Pundits Gloss Over Race and Feed Racism

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/29/art.obamaspeaking2.jpg ]

Tim Wise
Friend of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
Author of 'White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son'

Much has been said about the role that racism may play in the outcome of the 2008 Presidential election.

But what has been largely ignored is the way that media pundits, by virtue of the language they use, the questions they ask, and the way they frame issues, often reinforce racial division, and make it harder for us to examine race issues honestly.

So consider the way the media has been pushing the question, "Can Obama win working class voters?" Or, "Why is Obama having trouble connecting with working class voters?" Both questions ignore that Obama doesn't have a working class problem—large percentages of the black folks who are turning out to support him at rates of 90% are indeed working class—but rather, a white working class problem.

By implicitly equating "working class" with white, the media reinforces the notion of "hard-working," average (i.e. normal) folks as white. This then leaves blacks to be viewed either as the decidedly non-working and dreaded "underclass," or the elitist types that Hillary Clinton wants people to envision when they think of Senator Obama. Either of these images can reinforce racism, either by stoking white fear of the former or resentment toward the latter.

Or consider the way the media has responded to the Jeremiah Wright controversy.
Although much attention has been paid to black anger in the wake of Rev. Wright's largely-taken-out-of-context comments, and although some have tried to explain the place of such righteous indignation within the black church and community, the framing of the issue has reinforced the white perspective as normal, and thus, valid. So we are asked to wonder, "Why are some black people so angry?" rather than, "Why are some white people so complacent?" about racial injustice.

White complacency is seen as normal, while black anger is taken as the pathology to be understood, ultimately making them the problem. Their perspectives are the ones that are strange and in need of explanation, but ours (if we're white) are perfectly fine and need not be explained or defended to anyone. Such a normalizing of the white perspective only makes it more likely that whites will be hostile to those who think and view the world differently.

Of course, it's not only this election where the media has normalized whiteness, or made it altogether invisible, so that its consequences can't even be seen, let alone understood.

Consider the 2004 Presidential race, after which most every talking head noted that President Bush had won the "evangelical vote," and claimed that the nation was divided between "blue states" and "red states."

In the first instance, commentators failed to notice that the President most certainly did not win the black evangelical vote, but only the white evangelical vote. Black evangelicals voted against him by at least four to one. Saying that "evangelicals" supported the President, as the media did, marginalized Christians of color, whose sense of religious duty compelled them to vote differently from their white brothers and sisters. Why? Who knows? No one thought to ask.

As for blue states and red states, the notion of a geographic divide in this country is largely mythical. Most whites in the blue states—including New York, California, Illinois, Michigan and Maryland—either voted for Bush, or split 50-50 between Bush and Kerry. Meanwhile, in the red states, people of color voted overwhelmingly against the President. In other words, the real divide was racial, not regional.

By ignoring this truth, the media ducked the hard questions about why whites and folks of color often view our country so differently, and come to such different conclusions about what would be best for the nation politically.

But it is this kind of question we need to confront in order to have a truly productive conversation about race in America. That our respective racial identities often shape the way we view our national past, present and desired future—and therefore, often cause tension because we can't fathom where "the other guy" is coming from—is the truth that won't go away.

Only if media helps to uncover that reality, and encourage a real discussion about what it means, for all of us, will we likely make progress on the road to racial equity.

soundoff (204 Responses)
  1. Michelle

    I feel a new kind of energy for change in this country. People of all colors are rallying around a candidate who has few obligatory ties to big business and isn't politically dirty enough to have anyone pulling his leash. In response, The People are once again rising to demand this country clean up it's act and start acting like the democracy we push around the world.

    But there is an opposing energy…an energy that seeks chaos, division and repression. Consider who would want to break Obama's growing Rainbow coalition by creating chaos and spread misinformation? Who would stoop to pretend to be irate black bloggers raising the threat of black riots? Who would turn friend against friend? Who would want to fracture the black community by inciting infighting now that they are coming together and affirming their political relevance? Who would be threatened by the poor of this country… a growing number of citizens who have started to demand equal health care and economic rights in the richest country in the world? Who ignores the failing public school system…a system that has been an acknowledged pipeline into the penal system for many disadvantaged students? Who would want to divide and conquer the American people and lead us back into a frightened, somatic state of antipathy and hopelessness?

    If you are someone who wants change do not become discouraged! Shed your tears and then get back in the fight. Now is the time for change. Our ears and eyes are open. The youth of this country are leading the way. They are crying out for our help. Do not miss this opportunity for change. We must go through this birthing process to enter the 21st century. The human race must make a sociological transition and take global action now or we will perish.

    Like any birthing process there is pain as well as joy. There are many who are afraid of the future and would prefer to isolate themselves in the comfort of delusion, cronyism and hedonistic distraction. However, we must have the courage to examine our acculturated prejudices. Those of us in the white community often do not even recognize the ways we discount people of race. I have made many biased statements this year and did not recognize them as such. As Mr. Wise states, there have been MANY instances in the media this year when I have been appalled by insensitive "racial" or "biased" statements and statistics that discount the black vote. The fact that no one called foul before now is astonishing. In most instances, the white commentators were not even aware their view or comments are biased. And I'm not "too sensitive" about comments...the comments I am referring to were obvious enough to get my attention as a teacher who has been trained to promote equity in the classroom. Fascinating! It's all part of the birthing process.

    Will we all act responsibility and examine the biased views we may hold? Will we start a dialogue about "that other stuff" some politicians and citizens would like to ignore? Will we care enough about our neighbors to choose not to offend?

    Be the change you want to see – Gandhi

    Obama 2008

    April 30, 2008 at 1:42 pm |
  2. Tracy

    The unfortunate thing is the two are tied together. I am disappointed that the pator would decide to open his mouth at such a critical time in BOs campaign. I am not 100% aware of what he has said/feelings/who said what - however, a lot of his comments, I felt, were of a typical fashion.
    I hate to say this and may be way off base; situations like this exemplify the classic crab in the barrel syndrome. Black America is always striving for "equality and acceptance". Sometimes I feel like LOUDLY shouting DROP IT, move forward, and focus on tomorrow. You do not hear other races continuously harping on what has held them down, why they are owed, and an excuse why they arent moving forward. Either they move forward or THEY DONT! Drop it!
    I am an interracial American; black and white.

    April 30, 2008 at 11:56 am |
  3. Robert


    That is not what I was trying to get at; I'm afraid it's possible there will be a racist backlash against blacks if Obama wins the nomination. This country still has people who will go to extremes to keep a black man from being President of the United States. I hope to hell I'm wrong, but I've seen and heard some terrible things, and I'm assuming it's just the tip of the iceberg.

    April 30, 2008 at 11:54 am |
  4. A Khristin

    I think the preacher had some issues to address after being used as a target of reflection. Pastor Wright is an educated man. He had to give a response to the negative commentary regarding his surmon. He said his church is supportive to helping the community. His church has a positive congregation fighting for issues that affect the community at large. Wright wanted to express how he felt about being called a racist when he is addressing issues that are being targeted in the black community. He led on to say his church like the NAACP is not racist in that they help people of many races and ethinicities around the globe. His speech wanted to share that these things needed to be into consideration of promoting positive changes addressing the nation. I do not think he intended to cause any harm. It is not what he said it is how he said it. Like do you disagree in what I said, what you thought I said or what you wanted him to say. Men of liturgy are spokesman for religeoun. They have a congregation to run. Obama can not be held accountable for what Revern Wright said. Not everyone going to church agrees what the ulogy is saying all the time.

    April 30, 2008 at 10:44 am |
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